Jim Hall, quiet master of jazz guitar, dies at 83


Guitarist Jim Hall, right, plays in 2007 with Geoffrey Keezer on piano during the 50th annual Monterey Jazz Festival in Monterey, Calif. (Eric Risberg/AP)
December 11, 2013

Jim Hall, a jazz guitarist whose quiet mastery made him one of the most influential and admired musicians of his generation, died Dec. 10 at his home in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. He was 83.

His wife, Jane Hall, confirmed the death. She did not provide a specific cause but said Mr. Hall had never fully recovered from back surgery in 2008.

For decades, Mr. Hall was an important if understated presence in jazz, working alongside many of its biggest stars and serving as a mentor to younger musicians.

He toured with Ella Fitzgerald, provided the harmonic support for Sonny Rollins’s acclaimed comeback in the 1960s, recorded with classical violinist Itzhak Perlman and later with eclectic guitarists Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, both of whom considered Mr. Hall a formative influence.

Beginning in the 1950s, Mr. Hall made dozens of recordings that are considered models of six-string artistry. He continued to perform until Nov. 23, when he appeared at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center.

In 2003, Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout pronounced Mr. Hall “the greatest living jazz guitarist.” As early as 1992, he was cited by Guitar Player magazine as one of 25 guitarists “who shook the world.” He was the only pure jazz guitarist on a list that included such high-amplification rock stars as Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen and Jeff Beck.

“Sometimes I wish I had the facility to play too fast,” Mr. Hall told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “I’ve tried to go the other direction — to rely on minimalist techniques. There are different ways of drawing attention.”

When he and Metheny recorded a duet album in 1999, Metheny told NPR, “Jim is, from my standpoint, about 100 times more intense than, you know, a death-metal guitar player.”

His subtle approach began to draw attention in 1955, when he moved to California and became a key member of the pioneering cool-jazz group led by drummer Chico Hamilton, who died last month. Mr. Hall then joined the experimental trio led by saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre, who taught him to blend his guitar with other instruments and to eliminate the clicking sound of his pick striking the strings.

Mr. Hall toured Europe with French actor-singer Yves Montand, then was part of Fitzgerald’s back-up group for her best-selling “Mack the Knife” album, recorded in Berlin in 1960.

In the 1960s, he played on two duo albums with pianist Bill Evans, “Undercurrent” and “Intermodulation,” which are considered models of improvisational interplay.

Mr. Hall’s 1975 album “Concierto,” with trumpeter Chet Baker, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond and bassist Ron Carter, featured a 19-minute version of “Concierto de Aranjuez” by Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo that has become recognized as one of the most lyrically beautiful jazz recordings ever made — “a masterpiece,” according to the All About Jazz Web site.

One of Mr. Hall’s most-celebrated recordings came in a supporting role. In 1962, he appeared on “The Bridge,” an influential recording by Rollins that heralded the tenor saxophonist’s return to music after a self-imposed exile of more than two years.

“When Sonny asked me to work with him, it was like getting a blessing from the pope,” Mr. Hall told the New York Times in 1982. “It was frightening to be on the stand with him because he’s such a sensational player.”

The contrast between Rollins and Mr. Hall was like fire and ice, and Mr. Hall’s ability to create a subtle musical tension helped underscore his lasting influence.

“Hall is the master of space and economy,” Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins once wrote. “He improvises short sovereign phrases that sustain interest largely for the way they sound; his solos unfold statically, like tableaux. . . . He avoids cliches as if they simply aren’t in his vocabulary.”

James Stanley Hall was born in Buffalo on Dec. 4, 1930. After his parents’ divorce, he grew up in Cleveland, where he began playing the guitar at age 10.

He was inspired by hearing guitarist Charlie Christian on a Benny Goodman recording. He said in a 2003 interview for the Jazz Masters program of the National Endowment for the Arts: “I remember thinking I wasn’t even sure what he was doing, but I said, ‘Whatever that is, I wish I could do it.’ ”

He studied classical composition at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he received a bachelor’s degree in music theory in 1955. He then devoted himself to jazz, first in California and later in New York. Throughout his life, Mr. Hall was also a skilled composer and arranger whose works appeared on his dozens of albums.

In the mid-1960s, he gave up performing in nightclubs for a few years while overcoming a drinking problem. During that time, he was part of the house band of TV talk-show host Merv Griffin.

Bald, bespectacled and given to understatement, Mr. Hall thereafter led a life that was more low-key than his playing.

Survivors include his wife of 48 years, Jane Yuckman Hall of New York; and a daughter, Devra Hall Levy of Altadena, Calif.

In 2004, the NEA named Mr. Hall a jazz master — the first guitarist to win the honor since the program began in 1982. Until the end, he continued to release heavily-lauded recordings and to appear at jazz festivals and in small nightclubs, where he enjoyed the intimacy with audiences and his fellow musicians.

“I’ve thought of giving it up and going into something else,” Mr. Hall told the New Yorker magazine in 1975, “but I know that would be crazy the minute I pick my guitar up again. So when I ask myself, ‘Am I going to want to go into saloons and play guitar when I’m 50 or 60 or 70,’ the answer is yes.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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